Mathematics and Big Data

The Department of Mathematical Sciences has developed an innovative, industry-centered program to train students in data science. Our focus, which is significantly different from other Universities that also have begun data science programs, is to focus on teaching data analytics and theory for real big data problems. Our goal is to produce graduates that have faced the challenges of big data with real problems and are ready to be productive employees. We want our graduates to be productive on the first day of the job.

We offer four courses directly aimed at big data:
  1. Practical Big Data Analytics. A methods course taught in a lab format with a very heavy emphasis on programming (90% Python, 10% R) and big data algorithms such as Map/Reduce. Students program all of the algorithms they use so that they understand what’s going on.
  2. Theoretical Big Data Analytics and Near Real-Time Computation Algorithms. A theory course aimed at providing students with the knowledge and understanding necessary for innovation and creating new algorithms.
  3. Big Data Analytic Projects. Practical experience in solving real problems brought by technology companies. The next paragraph explains more.
  4. Cognitive Computing. Aimed at understanding the capabilities and limitations of IBM Watson.

Are there any other reasons to come to Missoula and the University of Montana to study big data? Yes:

  1. Missoula is the best place in Montana for technology businesses, it’s one of 50 Google eCities, and it's ranked fifth in the country among cities with a population of less than 250,000 for its number of high-tech launches. Plus, the skiing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, floating, hunting, and fishing is great.
  2. The University offers a Certificate in Big Data Analytics.
  3. The Department of Mathematical Sciences offers a Masters' degree in Data Science. Students will be admitted into the program beginning Autumn 2017.
  4. The School of Business offers business-oriented data science courses and a Master degree in business  analytics.

Data Science course offerings Fall 2015

The Big Data Analytic Projects course

The Big Data Analytic Projects course was taught for the first time Spring semester 2014. Problems were brought to us from industry and academia. In brief, these were

  1. Estimate of inter- and intra-company teleconference usage from incomplete log files. Brought by Dan Cripe, ATG.
  2. Investigation and development of algorithms for predictive analytics. Brought by Kegan Rabil, GCS.
  3. Develop software to estimate the height of the atmospheric inversion layer from radiosonde transmissions. Brought by Jennifer Fowler, NASA Outreach.
  4. Analyze the relationship between mobility, pain, and barriers encountered by persons with disabilities using data collected by personal data recorders. Brought by Craig Ravesloot, U Montana Rural Institute.
If your company has a problem and would like to discuss contributing it to the class, please contact Brian Steele at or 406-243-5396. We will work with you and try to produce the most valuable solution possible.

The Big Data Projects class and the InterCall teleconferencing problem

This project involved an Advanced Technology Group client, InterCall.  InterCall provides, among a number of services, a conference call service. InterCall aims to optimize resource allocation by strategically locating hubs, but the amount of teleconferencing traffic between user locations was imprecisely known. The objective of the project was to estimate call traffic load between user locations.

The difficulty in estimating traffic between locations arose because when a conference call takes place, only the host location is known; the locations of participants is usually unknown. There is no direct way of precisely determining location-to-location traffic load.

The Big Data Projects class team tasked with the problem consisted of Soya Bjorlie (math), Ben Campbell (math and computer science),  and J.R. Reynolds (business management information systems and computer science).


The data provided by InterCall consisted of teleconferencing logs. All identifying information was made indecipherable by hashing. The line below is a conference call log.

muNoV1388617588455172042270,ecdee5de15af6876cfab0801bb36f445,PSTN,Dial In,User Initiated,AIP,2014-01-01 18:14:23.025000,2014-01-0118:19:42.083000,421927,343,.1,4.1,4.2,4.1,90,89,91,91,G711Ulaw,ATT_8005,221,swn01gsx23,VoIP,PSTN-TO-IP,,,,,,None,False

Log files from 38 consecutive days were provided by InterCall. Approximately, the total volume of the data was 13 GB consisting of 7 million unique phone number IDs and 24,500 company IDs.

The team pursued two approaches both of which involved estimating the amount of traffic between hosts. Location-to-location traffic can be easily determined once this information is known.

First approach

This approach attempted to predict the the owners of participant phone numbers.  The motivation for the approach was the assumption that most of the time, the plurality of conference calls involving a participant would be to the employer of the participant. Therefore, the predicted owner of a participant phone number was the company that owned the majority of the calls involving the participant ID.

An algorithm was implemented that examined all teleconferences that a each phone number participated in and determined the host company of each conference. A second algorithm predicted the phone number owner. A third algorithm determined the amount of traffic between each pair of companies.

The algorithms were programming in Java and implemented as a sequence of three Map/Reduce algorithms executing on a Hadoop platform.


The table below shows a snapshot of the estimated resource utilization between of resource utilization by a few of the companies with the greatest amount of resource utilization (hours). Execution time was less than one hour.

Company ID Company ID Resource Utilization (hours)
32348 32348 491,759.8
32348 191821 150,263.0
355602 355602 2,341,980.0
355602 421927 22,868.9

The second approach

The second approach aimed to estimate traffic between pairs of companies pairs according to fraction of participants that were involved in teleconferences to both companies relative the number of participants that were involved in teleconferences to either companies. This comparison leads to the Jaccard measure of similarity. The difficulty with the approach is that the number of possible company pairs was on the order of 300,000,000. Consequently, the approach is adapted to process only those companies with the largest numbers of calls.

The Figure isolates two companies and shows major company-to-company connections for each. These two companies are strongly connected to each other and a handful of other companies.

Network Graph for companies

Practical Big Data Analytics class

The content of this course is the mathematics and algorithms of data science. Since programming is an essential skill needed of data scientists, students program every algorithm covered in the course.  A laboratory format is used; we meet once a week for 3 hours. There’s often a short lecture at the beginning but about 75% of the class time is spent coding.

All data used in the class are real and available on the web. For example, we use election campaign contribution data available from the Federal Election Commision.  Students were tasked with extracting information from these data. To illustrate, the Figure below, constructed by Jay Engenhoff, shows the donation totals for each of 29,770 zip codes from  approximately 3.7 million contribution records collected during the 2011 and 2012 election cycle.

2012 Political Contribution by Zip Code

Figure 1. 2012 election cycle donation totals by zip code for the continental U.S. Data obtained from the Federal Election Commission.

The FEC data also provide an opportunity to reveal the political complexion of employees of major corporations. The Figure below shows the distribution of donations to Republican and Democratic parties for a few of the employers with the largest total employee donations. Asset management firms tend to donate to Republican candidates whereas technology and health sector companies favor Democratic candidates. Department of Defense and US Army employees tended to donate to Democratic candidates.

Donation totals for Republican and Democratic party candidates by employer for the 2012 election cycle

Figure 2. Donation totals for Republican and Democratic party candidates by employer for the 2012 election cycle. Data obtained from the Federal Election Commission.


What is a data scientist?

Slideshow for Peter Coffee's Big Data Goes to Work: Liberating Latent Value in a Connected World

The Internet of Things:

You can learn more from the official Data Science Initiative webpage